In her third week as executive director at Stone Barns Center, home to a nearly 400-acre farming operation and educational campus just 30 miles from New York City, Lauren Yarmuth is helping to bring the vision of a circular food economy to scale.
Her thinking (and approach to sustainability) has guided her contributions across architecture, textiles, apparel and now food systems. Prior to Stone Barns Center, she led the circular economy portfolio at IDEO and founded a sustainable consulting firm.
Here, Yarmuth talks about systems thinking, the links between food and fashion, the power of community — and why asking questions is important.
WWD: Where does this passion for sustainability take root?
Lauren Yarmuth: There are sort of two answers to it. I grew up writing poetry in Seattle and ended up writing a lot about the woods and the rock outcroppings and the ocean. I was using words to figure out how to reconcile growing up, and who I was in relation to the natural systems around me.
It became this really interesting bridge into the natural world, and I ended up going to architecture school, partly because my parents were like, “poetry?,” but more importantly because like poetry, architecture is a language of expression. In architecture school, I sat in on this amazing presentation by the Rocky Mountain Institute, and they were talking about green sustainable architecture, and I was like, “Aha! That’s it.”
Designers talk about the tension between form and function. I became very curious about how function could drive form as a pathway to sustainability. From there, systems started to all link together — watersheds, cities, buildings, products, people, food.
After architecture school, I worked at the Rocky Mountain Institute where I began a deep dive into green buildings. The leap from buildings to food is probably the more interesting one. I started a company that was doing green building consulting and eventually came to realize that buildings are only going to be as sustainable as the people who occupy them.
How do you connect with people, what makes people make different decisions or behave in a different way? Food is the first order; everybody has to eat. We make decisions around our food multiple times a day, and those choices we make literally become who we are. So I leapt into food and started to try to understand what makes people make more systemic choices about their food — and how can we extrapolate that for everything else?
WWD: So how do you do that?
L.Y.: At IDEO our circular economy team had two verticals: textiles and food systems. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how those two intersect and relate — there are a lot of parallels.
Especially here at Stone Barns, it is about how we shift the systemic so that we have more democratized access to what ultimately can be individual decisions. The key connection is making things personal, starting to identify yourself in the decisions you’re making.
Transparency has come a long way, and helps to smooth the path for the shifts we are looking for in the sustainability realm. The textiles world has seen a lot of progress; Everlane — and Patagonia for that matter — were such remarkable examples. The food world has too. For example, the urban agriculture movement has been extremely effective in demonstrating its importance because it its impact is immediate and tangible to so many to live in urban and suburban areas. All of those become data points, so a consumer can say, “I can see it. I can understand it, and it has this impact on me.”
That’s the first step of it, then it doesn’t matter if I’m a lawyer or a cab driver because I have a role to play in this because it’s a system and the system touches all of us. That’s where it becomes really interesting. And that’s true of the food system, that’s true of the apparel system, that’s true of really any other system.
A lot of my work to date has been with connecting this abstract, complex system with individual care for yourself and for the people you love. And food and textiles are a huge opportunity for that.
WWD: Is that the essence of systems thinking and systems design?
L.Y.: Not necessarily. The essence of systems thinking and systems design is that everything is connected and incredibly complex. Instead of simplifying the complexities, it’s allowing the complexities to be complex.
We spend so much time trying to simplify and separate, and that’s gotten us to where we are, which is part of the problem.
Coming from IDEO, which is all about human-centered design, that is saying if we can start with what is desirable and relatable — it’s more likely to resonate and to stick. That stickiness is where we start to really affect things.
WWD: Why aren’t more leaders approaching problem-solving in that way?
L.Y.: I was reading the daily report on WeWork, and what’s been going on with them. The thing that was so interesting to me about that was the way WeWork got so much traction was that people are really longing for community.
Millennials, and especially Gen Zers, are really hungry for something that feels bigger than them. The brands and narratives that start to offer more meaning are really significant.
There’s a report out of the Harvard Divinity School called “CrossFit as Church? Examining How We Gather” that basically looked at how we, Millennials and Gen Zers — which I am not but nonetheless — are searching for things that give us a sense of meaning and connection.
We’re going to SoulCycle instead of church because we’re not sure what we believe anymore. Suddenly a SoulCycle instructor is officiating a wedding because that’s who we associate with meaning makers. It’s part of a broader trend and paradigm.
It’s sometimes confusing what is authentic and real. It’s not handed to us anymore. It’s easier to throw my arms up and say: “I don’t have control anymore,” than it is to say: “Gosh, I do want to feel like I’m part of something. I see a pathway to do it. I’m not sure,” and then in being unsure, I’m going to start asking questions instead of throwing my hands up.
That culture of inquiry is the key to everything.
Being confident enough to ask the questions: “Where did that come from? What is that made of? What’s the implication of that?” Starting to ask the questions will start to unravel the complexities so that you can enter in and have a shift.
WWD: Tell me more about that transition from IDEO, and what you do here at Stone Barns?
L.Y.: I’ve been working with Stone Barns on behalf of IDEO for the past year to help think about how Stone Barns could be scaling its impact and stepping into the current environmental needs and global paradigm and bring its core capabilities to scale.
I was really excited to step in and bring that opportunity to life — to take this thing that has been so successful for the last 15 years and take it to the next level.
Stone Barns is basically a living laboratory. We are this place where food and farming intersect. It’s not just farm-to-table because it goes to the next level to say: “How do you scale that?” It’s not just a delicious meal but something that actually changes how culture engages around food.
We’ve identified a couple of key areas that we want to go deeper into, a lot of them we already do: the way that we can be growing food for flavor but also soil health; the way that we can be preparing food but also the culinary creativity around that; the research and development that goes into it; how we treat animals — all of those things that go into something like grass-feed beef and how that impacts the food system.
It’s how we can use this unique place for experimentation and share the learnings out into the world.
WWD: What role does the surrounding community play in developing the culture? Is there an open dialogue with community members?
L.Y.: We welcome thousands of people to our campus every year, all of whom are looking for a deeper connection to their food. Many of our community members come weekly or even more frequently.
They both feel good about the work that’s happening here and also really love to be part of it, love to be part of the community-supported agriculture program, or coming to events and learning and bringing those learnings home.
Some of those are individuals live nearby, but a lot of them are also food change agents, like the beginning farmers who come here for training and inspiration. Our Young Farmers Conference is coming up, and we’ll have farmers from all over the country and around the world who are trying to build viable businesses while living out their values in a way that is sustainable for them and the planet.
Sometimes the answers to how to go about that are obvious, and sometimes they’re not. That’s where we come in and share our resources and completely open-source our learnings. Then these farmers become the ambassadors that go out into the world and have the ripple effect.
WWD: You also contributed to the Circular Design Guide. Between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO, what are some of the things you looked at there and different synergies?
L.Y.: The Circular Design Guide was supposed to be an open-source set of tools so that people could work in a circular way in whatever they’re working on and that same kind of open-source nature is what we do here.
The intention is impact and scale. It’s not about just producing a document and putting it out into the world, it’s about facilitating an exchange both by the networks that are brought together, the learnings that are shared and the dialogue that can be around that so that the learning becomes a culture of inquiry.
WWD: For those unfamiliar, what is regenerative farming and agriculture?
L.Y.: The way I understand it is that regenerative systems are systems working in service of life. It’s going from what might be historically an extractive, “take” paradigm to one that adds value or ideally supports whole living systems.
It’s a progression. In order for us to be really realizing our potential, regeneration is not just a good idea — it’s critical.
It’s about shifting value creation, which starts with circularity and preventing waste from being built into the system from the get-go, then taking something that may be waste and turning it into value, but then also getting to that next level where value is reciprocated. It’s saying we need everything to be at its best.
WWD: What is end game?
L.Y.: The end game is being able to have every person, every element, every living thing, even every product, every piece of clothing item be able to live up to its potential.
If it’s a shirt, then that shirt is going to stay in circulation as long as it can. It’s not the end exactly, it’s looking at how we can be fostering things that can be interconnected and alive.
WWD: Do you see a timeline as to when this systemic shift needs to happen?
L.Y.: I think it is happening. The fact that we all know these terms and are contemplating these things is indicative of that shift. We have some of the largest apparel companies in the world trying to unlock some of these keys to different ownership models and different textile processing and patternmaking and everything else. It’s the same with food, the fact that discussions around farm-to-table and organics have had such an outsized impact.
Right now, the shift is still the educated and it often comes with a hefty price tag. Some of that is because we don’t have accounting that is reflective of true cost. But it’s definitely shifting. We have technology now — from blockchain to embedded RFID — that tells the true story of what’s going on.
WWD: Any other challenges you find that prevent more systemic change from happening?
L.Y.: It requires people to continue to lead with inquiry and not just rest on their haunches, and instead just ask the questions because when you ask — it goes a long way.
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